By Paul Shawcross
No visit to Provence is complete without a visit to at least one of its many ancient villages and some of the best examples in France are to be found in sun-drenched Provence. Not only that, several of France’s most well known, officially designated, Plus Beaux Villages are here too. I have included several of these in this selection and some others which, while not members of this elite club, would nevertheless be strong contenders! Many of these are so-called ‘villages perchés’ or perched villages which have their origins in rumbustious medieval times when their inhabitants very sensibly decided to build them on difficult to get at cliffs or rocky spurs!
1. Bonnieux (Vaucluse GPS Long 43.8241: Lat 5.3075)
Possibly the most famous of the Luberon’s villages, Bonnieux, although not officially designated as a Plus Beaux Village, it really should be!
This pretty terraced settlement offers a magnificent panorama from the Terrasse in the upper village. From here there are stunning views of neighbouring Lacoste and, across the valley, Gordes and Roussillon with the imposing white peak of Mont Ventoux beyond.
Bonnieux is an excellent base from which to explore the Luberon and, besides, there are some high-end restaurants and hotels here.
Don’t miss the nearby 2000 years old Roman Pont Julien, destined to survive another few centuries now that traffic has been banned!
2. Gordes (Vaucluse GPS Long 43.9112 : Lat 5.2013)
Opposite the Luberon and hugging the side of the Vaucluse Plateau stands the stunning perched village of Gordes, duly one of the Plus Beaux Villages of France.
Like most perched villages in Provence, Gordes was a sanctuary during the centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. During the Second World War it was a centre for the French Resistance and suffered reprisals by the Germans.
Stone houses, laid out in tiers and only accessible by a network of ‘calades’ are a feature of Gordes. Above the old houses stands a splendid Château which has its origins in the Middle Ages but was restored in Renaissance times. The Château is open to visitors and the upper levels have works by the Belgian contemporary, or ‘Pop’, artist Pol Mara.
Don’t miss: Sénanque Abbey nearby, especially when the lavender is in bloom (June/July).
Tip: The best view of the village is from the D177 road as you drive towards the village. If you pull over, be careful as there is restricted parking and a deep gorge alongside the road.
3. Lacoste (Vaucluse GPS Long 43.8310 : Lat 5.2722)
No, I haven’t decided to promote a certain designer label – this is the actual name of this splendid village located right in the heart of the Luberon Natural Regional Park!
Much of Lacoste, including the ruins of the Château, underwent an extensive restoration programme during the early years of the century financed and driven by the famous fashion designer Pierre Cardin. As with many old villages in the region, the original inhabitants have long gone and ‘incomers’ such as wealthy Parisians like Cardin come here for the Summer only. As a result the village is deserted during the Winter months except for some local artisans who choose to remain.
The old streets,replete with arches and old stone houses are narrow and cobbled, like all perched village in this part of the world but Lacoste has a certain charm. The restored Château dominates the village as it did when the local seigneur was none other than the infamous Marquis de Sade.
From the terrasse of the Café de France enjoy the stunning views of the Luberon including neighbouring Bonnieux and Ménerbes. Looking north you can see Gordes, Roussillon and, on a clear day which let’s face most are, you can make out the white peak of Mont Ventoux standing high above the Vaucluse Plateau.
4. Les-Baux-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône GPS Long 43.7455 : Lat 4.7047)
This stunning Plus Beau Village, where Bauxite was discovered, is spectacularly perched high up on a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles. Vertical cliffs on either side made this an impregnable stronghold for the Lords of Baux who ruled here during the Middle Ages.
From their fortress the Lords terrorised the region and were renowned for hurling un-ransomed captives off the walls! The Counts of Provence, who disputed their claim to the territory, took their opportunity when in 1426 Alix, the last Princess of Baux, died and the Count was able to take possession and subsequently demolished the castle.
Fréderic Mistral, the 19th century poet who revived the local Provençal culture and language, considered the village which he had long admired to be an appropriate capital despite much of it being dilapidated. However, in 1966 the Ministry of Culture took it over and later restored the buildings enabling today’s visitor to explore in safety. Check out Place and Église St-Vincent, the bread ovens, the partly restored Château and the Chapelle des Pénitants Blancs not to mention the magnificent views of the Alpilles.
5. Lourmarin (Vaucluse GPS Long 43.7648 : Lat 5.3630)
Another of Provence’s Plus Beaux Villages, Lourmarin stands in a small curve of the River Aiguebrun below the southern slopes of the Luberon Mountains. Long a place for artists and creatives, the cemetery is the last resting place of the authors Albert Camus and Henri Bosco. Check out the fine Renaissance church and narrow winding streets interspersed with fountains.
Dominating the village is the part late medieval and part Renaissance Château, constructed on the site of a 12th-century fortress. The older part of consists a library and student accommodation. Moreover, the Fondation Lourmarin Robert Laurent-Vibert, which promotes the creative arts, is based here.
The imposing Renaissance wing is famous for its Grand Staircase adorned with a salamander, which was of course the emblem of Francois I who is considered to be the first Renaissance King of France. Furthermore, be sure not to miss the ornate chimney pieces flanked by Corinthian columns and decorated with the heads of Aztecs and Incas.
6. Roquebrune-sur-Argens (Var GPS Long 43.4434 : Lat 6.6364)
Perched on a rocky spur at the foot of the Rocher-de-Roquebrune this delightful old village, founded during the 11th Century, is located in the Var not far from Fréjus. It is, in fact, three villages in one: Roquebrune itself, La Bouverie and Les Issambres.
In ancient times Rocquebrune was a stronghold and remains of the ramparts can still be seen although its defensive walls were torn down during the Wars of Religion (1592).
There are still plenty of old houses to be found opposite the Clock Tower in the rue des Portiques and elsewhere in the narrow winding streets, which are a delight to wander around. Check out the 16th Century Gothic church of St-Pierre & St-Paul and also the Musée du Patrimoine, in the Impasse Barbacane, housing Prehistoric and Roman artefacts.
7. Saorge (Alpes-Maritimes GPS Long 43.9884 : Lat 7.5518)
The ancient village of Saorge is located on the shoulder of the Roya Valley and is considered to be one of the most spectacular in the whole of France!
This small village of 459 inhabitants (2017), settled before the Classical era, clings to the vertiginous slopes of a natural amphitheatre and its late Medieval houses, interspersed with church belfries, create a unique atmosphere.
It is possible to admire the village from the road (D6204/E74) which runs through the valley below. However, I would advise making the effort to take the signposted road from Fontan to the village itself. This way you can wander along the narrow streets which eventually lead to a terrace where you can enjoy the wonderful view of the magnificent Roya Valley flanked by its gorges.
Don’t Miss: Église St-Sauveur and the 11th-Century Madonna del Poggio
8. St. Paul-de-Vence (Alpes-Maritimes GPS Long 43.6975 : Lat 7.1219)
The epitome of a Provençal Village Perché or hill village, St-Paul was originally built to give some protection to the inhabitants from marauding pirates along the coast. St-Paul-de-Vence rises out of the landscape and makes a stunning picture especially in the late afternoon.
Perched on a rocky bluff in the hills above Nice, the village is a very popular tourist attraction and deservedly so with its intact ramparts, 12th Century Gothic Church and impressive rue Grande with 16/17th century houses and its famous, unique urn-shaped fountain.
If you’re a fan of modern art don’t miss the Fondation Maeght on Chemin des Fumerates just north-west of the parking place. Enjoy works by Braque, Chagal and Kandinsky among others.
9. St. Saturnin-lès-Apt (Vaucluse GPS Long 43.9427 : Lat 5.3795)
The romantic, quiet and exquisite Provençal village of St-Saturnin-lès-Apt nestles in the foothills of the Vaucluse Plateau near the small town of Apt.
The Medieval Château dominates the village which, while not officially designated as a Plus Beau Village, must have a strong claim to be one! The Château is a ruin nowadays but climbing the rocky path to the castle leads to a splendid panorama of the Luberon.
St-Saturnin is renowned for its cherries – their blossom is well worth visiting the Luberon to see during March and early April. There are walks from here but between September and March is the season for ‘La Chasse’ so watch out for shooters! Ensure you wear a bright colour!
10. Seillans (Var GPS Long 43.6364 : Lat 6.6446)
The Plus Beau Village of Seillans is located in the north of the Var Département. As a village perché, it overlooks the vast plain which eventually meets the Esterel between Cannes and Saint-Raphael.
This ancient settlement, dating back to the 12th Century, is a maze of steep, narrow cobbled streets connected by arched passages with the occasional fountain and café terrace.
Begin your exploration at the wonderful place du Thouron where you’ll find the shady tables of La Gloire de mon Père and the Tourist Office which will provide a map to guide you around the village.
© Words & Images Paul Shawcross
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